Note: This is a guest post from our colleague Kim Klein, a terrific author, fundraising trainer, and mentor to many, many grassroots fundraisers. Thanks Kim!
Early in my consulting practice, I had the opportunity to work with the boards of three very different organizations.
- A well-established theater company
- A welfare rights advocacy group
- An all-volunteer “friends of the parks” which raised money for improvements to the city parks
Each board said they wanted to attract new individual donors and raise more money from current donors.
Who has the best chance for success?
On paper, the theater company should have been most successful. Their board members were able to make gifts in the $5,000-$20,000 range and had access to people who could make similar gifts. They had professional staff and excellent systems.
On paper, the welfare rights group began with the biggest challenges. Several board members were currently on welfare; all the others had been at one time or another. There was no formal comitment for the board to give money, and most did not. The staff had good success with foundation grants and didn’t press the board members on any issues related to fundraising.
Friends of the Parks was determined to raise money from businesses and corporations, but meanwhile had attracted almost 200 individual donors without doing much of anything.
Can you guess which organizations made the best use of training and consulting to better recruit, retain, and upgrade their donors?
It was a tie between the parks and the welfare rights boards. The theater showed no improvement at all.
Two keys: Humility and the desire to get better together
There were two very simple variables connected to their improvement.
First, humility. The successful boards included a majority of members who accepted that they didn’t understand fundraising.
Second, they were eager to learn – and improve their skills – together.
Not all experience is good experience
Many of the theater board members had participated in fundraising. They had very set ideas about what worked and what didn’t.
For example, when I suggested that some donors be asked to double their gifts, the prevailing wisdom of this board was summarized by the chair: “People know we need more money. Let’s not insult them by saying that out loud.”
Almost no donors increased their giving, but the board wasn’t moved to reconsider.
Making matters worse, these board members asked me to send them written materials, because they didn’t want to schedule an extra meeting to be trained.
Ask for what you want – as clearly as you can
Compare this this to welfare rights board, whose “light bulb moment” was summarized by a long-time member.
“When we doubled the price of our raffle tickets, I thought people wouldn’t buy any. In fact, we actually raised more money per ticket and we sold way more tickets. However, when we said to our members, ‘Can you give more this year?,’ very few increased their gifts. You have to tell people exactly what you need and not make them guess.”
Then they asked if I could come in three evenings in a row to work on a fundraising plan. Talk about a productive attitude…!
Listen and learn
When I explained to Friends of the Parks that businesses and corporations don’t give nearly as much money as one would imagine, they immediately sidelined that effort in favor of building a membership focused on park neighbors.
They paired up, went to different neighborhoods with slightly different messages, then came together to compare what worked best.
Why some boards succeed – and some don’t
There are a lot of reasons why some boards embrace fundraising and others don’t. If you want to improve your odds, recruit board members who are willing to learn and try new things.
For that reason, I suggest that your nominating committee use these recruitment questions.
- If you want to learn a new skill, how do you do it? Ideal answers might include: I ask friends, I go to a class, I ask someone who knows to show me how. These answers reveal a desire to learn with other people, which is important in building a team.
- Tell us about the last time you changed your mind about something. The best answers reveal flexibility based on learning new information, then integrating and using that information.
Fundraising is a teachable, learnable skill
Despite all the mystery and misinformation that surrounds fundraising, here’s the truth – it’s a skill you can learn and master like any other.
As you build your board, recruit people with open minds who like to learn in a mutually supportive environment. Then do your best to create that environment through lots of board training and opportunities to practice their new skills.